I have been curious for some time about how mental health issues affect the classroom, and what teachers like myself can actually do to intervene when students experience anxiety, stress, or depression. My interest in mindfulness began almost immediately after taking up this research topic, as many studies have shown mindfulness training (MT) to be effective in treating issues related to mental health. But I wanted to know more about how effective it might be for use in class, and what lessons about the brain we could relate to students through learning about mindfulness.
What appeals to me about teaching mindfulness is the insight it can give into the brain, and specifically how our thoughts connect to our mental wellness. I recently wrote about how teaching cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) concepts like exploring and correcting thought distortions can help reduce anxiety and depression (Brunotte, 2021a), and mindfulness training can offer the same understanding: our cognition and emotions are connected, and changing how we think alters how we feel. This article will explore the main lessons that MT offers, what the potential benefits to students may be, and examples of activities and resources available to instructors. I believe showing students how MT can impact not only their mental health, but their learning abilities as well, can encourage them to take on these practices in a way that positively influences their lives.
As a current PhD candidate studying social psychology, I am only interested in exploring the scientific basis for mindfulness and the empirical evidence for its effectiveness, and have less concern for its connections to religion. In my opinion, it might be good to take this same non-religious approach in teaching mindfulness to students. In Japan, the last 25 years have marked a period of deep distrust in new religions and cultism. The AUM Shinrikyo Tokyo subway attacks in 1995 and the antipathy toward groups like Soka Gakkai (starting from the same period) have caused many to be wary of ideas seeming to come from a religious source (McLaughlin, 2012). I would therefore recommend presenting MT using the rich evidence for its usefulness from psychology and other research, rather than from its Buddhist origins. Although I appreciate these religious roots, I believe students will put up fewer barriers if mindfulness is approached from an empirically-based, objective stance.
Basics of MT
Mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Kabat-Zinn, 2004, p. 4). Living in a non-mindful way often means that we are distracted by thoughts, slaves to our own negative emotions, and not fully aware of what is happening in the moment and the myriad choices we have at our disposal. Although meditation is a way of putting mindfulness lessons into practice, it is crucial to first teach these core concepts to students. An excellent source for beginners is Williams and Penman’s Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World (2011). The authors do an excellent job of outlining the key teachings of MT, which I will summarize here:
- Repetitive, negative thinking causes problems. Those suffering from anxiety or depression often have intrusive thoughts, especially judgments about the self, that cause mental anguish. Mindfulness can help stop this cycle.
- Mental events and emotions are only temporary. Many times, the bad feelings we have can seem like they will go on forever. Mindfulness helps you to remember that these emotions will eventually pass, and to learn to see them from an outside perspective.
- It can be useful to learn to do nothing and be in the moment. The modern mind is in “do mode” almost constantly. Issues like anxiety and stress can’t be solved using the same “to do list” approach that you bring to tasks like fixing a leaky faucet. Focusing attention on the breath can teach you to flip this switch to “off” temporarily and learn to see what is actually happening in your mind and body.
- Learning to stop reacting automatically can bring benefits. A lack of mindfulness can mean you react to things in your life in ways that are not ideal. Anger, impulsivity, etc. can often cause more stress than the thing that triggered the initial emotion. Mindfulness can help give you a moment to stop and think before you act.
These key points show that thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are all connected, and can be more in our control if we make some changes. Ultimately, this can mean improvements to mental health and happiness, and extra success at work or school. To see these improvements, mindfulness training requires putting these lessons to practice using short, guided meditations or mental exercises (see the final section of this article for some examples). An important finding is that MT can have a positive impact on those using it even over the short term, such as within only a few months (Williams & Penman, 2011). For teachers, this means, even over the course of a semester, students could begin to feel the benefits of its use. Many commonly used meditations take between five and ten minutes, which also makes them much more palatable for beginners.
Evidence for the Positive Effects of Mindfulness on the Brain
I have put MT to use within my research into reducing public speaking anxiety, with students practicing mindfulness before at-home presentation practices (Brunotte, 2021b). Within my program, this was done along with CBT-based writing exercises in which students explored their own distorted thinking about their speaking abilities. When designing this program, I first looked at how psychotherapists and psychology researchers use mindfulness teachings and presented these research findings to students before beginning the activities. When students know that you are teaching mindfulness using evidence-based methods and a science-based approach, they are more likely to be receptive to the process you are presenting.
First, I would suggest sharing with students the evidence for mental health improvements through MT. Students often enter the classroom already suffering from anxiety, depression, or stress (Brunotte, 2019), and may be looking for ways to improve their situation. Mindfulness has now found wide-scale use within psychotherapy, and is often referred to as MBIs (mindfulness-based interventions). A meta-analysis by Hofmann et al. (2010) found that MBIs are effective in combatting anxiety and mood disorders. For the population I teach (university students), even short-term MBIs have been shown to be effective in the US in treating anxiety, depression and stress (Parcover et al., 2018). This reduction in stress is evident, even with those experiencing severe physical ailments, such as cancer patients (Specs et al., 2000).
As someone who also studies students’ sleep habits and other health choices, I find it promising that mindfulness training can help lead to better physical health as well, as MT has been shown to allow students to make better health-related choices, leading to better long-term health (Murphy et al., 2012). Sharing these types of studies with students before teaching mindfulness not only grounds your lesson in science, but also encourages the use of these techniques by demonstrating that others have already benefitted from such practices.
Perhaps even better news for teachers and students is that MT can improve brain function and learning outcomes as well. Making mindfulness part of your teaching can mean that students learn better the other material and skills you present as part of your course work. The effects of mindfulness on learning include: 1. Improvements to learning processes, teamwork between classmates, and the overall learning environment (Wang & Liu, 2016); 2. Improvements to attention and memory (Zanesco et al., 2019); 3. Improved test-taking skills (such as better time-management during assessments) (Osgood et al., 2017); 4. Improved visual memory, such as facial recognition (Giannou et al., 2021), and more.
This relationship between mindfulness and academic achievement may work in reverse as well. A study of 881 Japanese university students showed that mentally-stimulating activities, such as daily reading, predict higher natural levels of mindfulness and lower levels of depression (Miyata, 2020). Studies like this and the ones above, when presented to students, help prove the strong connections between thoughts, behaviors, mental and physical health, and learning outcomes, and can make them excited to learn what mindfulness has to offer.
Mindfulness Activities to Share with Students
Here are a few example activities that could be shared with students once the core tenants of mindfulness and the evidence for its effectiveness are taught. The idea is to present these in class, and try them as a group when possible. Students should then be encouraged to continue practicing at home as part of the MT process, branching out to other types of exercises and meditations as well. Japanese and bilingual resources are available and should be shared as well depending on the language needs of your students. (Click here to visit the International Mindfulness Center Japan website)
- Mindful eating exercises:
Before trying longer meditations, a good first step is to practice short, attention-focusing exercises that begin to demonstrate the key components of mindfulness. One way to try this is through food! Meals can often be a rushed, automatic process, and this exercise shows students how to bring their full attention to something they eat. Have students hold a small food item, such as a raisin or a piece of chocolate, and start by simply looking at it. They attend to how it feels in their hands, how it looks in the light, and then how it smells. Only after this do they place the food into their mouths, allowing the flavor to be experienced fully before even biting or swallowing. For a step-by-step explanation of this exercise along with writing activities, please see Teasdale et al. (2014, pp. 42-45).
- Mindful eating exercises:
- Breathing space meditation: Focusing attention on breathing is a central tenant of mindfulness meditations. This focus allows the person to stop the train of automatic thought, turn off the “do mode” that most of the day is spent in, and become aware of what is happening in that moment within the mind and body. These breathing meditations can be done in as little as three minutes (see the “3-Minute Breathing Space” in Williams & Penman, 2011, pp. 129-132). This meditation is easy to teach, especially within the three-minute form, as it breaks down into three equally spaced steps. First, tell the students to close their eyes and become aware of what is happening in their minds and their bodies at that moment. After one minute, then tell students to begin focusing on their breath and feelings of inhalation/exhalation in the stomach. Teach students that if their mind wanders, that is OK—just move the focus back to the breathing when they notice the wandering happened. Last, after another minute, tell the students to imagine their whole body is breathing. This means picturing air filling their bodies while inhaling, and then the same air exiting their bodies as they breathe out. Conceptually, as well as in practice, this exercise is easy to teach and then for students to practice at home on their own. Feel free to use this link to access a bilingual English/Japanese version of this meditation I recorded based on the one created by Williams and Penman. An English-only version recorded by Williams can also be found here.
- The befriending meditation:
As part of my public speaking anxiety reduction-related research, I also used this exercise with participants to help promote better feelings toward others, particularly future presentation audiences. Williams and Penman created this meditation as a way to first think positively about yourself, then about loved ones within your inner circle, and then eventually about others you do not know well or actively dislike. After a warm-up of focusing on breathing, have students repeat the three lines created for this meditation by the authors: A. “May I be free from suffering;” B. “May I be as happy and healthy as it is possible for me to be;” C. “May I have ease of being” (Williams & Penman, 2011, pp. 195-198). Have students then move to thinking these phrases in their minds about others, each time going increasingly farther from themselves and their inner circle of people. Williams’ audio guidance for this meditation can be found here.
- The befriending meditation:
Of course, many other exercises and activities exist that could be shared with students, depending on your own preferences, focus, and the time available. Below is a list of books and websites I recommend for teachers wanting to learn more about mindfulness and to share their interest with students. Although the evidence is clear that MT, MBIs, and other forms of mindfulness practice can benefit both ourselves and those we teach, I believe the correct approach to teaching about mindfulness, from a scientific basis, is necessary if we want students to trust these lessons and fully take on the important benefits mindfulness can give.
- Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, by Mark Williams and Danny Penman (Piatkus, 2011)
- Online audio files for the guided meditations in this book can be found here
- The Mindful Way Workbook: An 8-Week Program to Free Yourself from Depression and Emotional Distress, by John Teasdale, Mark Williams, and Zindel Segal (The Guilford Press, 201,)
- Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn (Piatkus, 2004)
- The Oxford Mindfulness Centre website
- Brunotte, J. (2019). Varieties of anxieties: The multifaceted nature of students’ worries in the classroom. MindBrainEd Think Tank+: Bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, 5(2), 20-23.
- Brunotte, J. (2021a). Introducing cognition and emotion connections through cognitive behavioral therapy. MindBrainEd Think Tank+: Bulletin of the JALT Mind, Brain, and Education SIG, 7(6), 34-43.
- Brunotte, J. (2021b). Public speaking anxiety in Japanese university students: Sources and strategies. The Journal of the School of Foreign Studies (Language and Literature): Aichi Prefectural University, 53, 265-281.
- Giannou, K., Frowd, C., Taylor, J., Lander, K. (2021). Mindfulness in face recognition: Embedding mindfulness instructions in the face-composite construction process. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 35(4), 999-1010.
- Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 169-183.
- Kabat-Zinn, J. (2004). Wherever you go, there you are. Piatkus.
- McLaughlin, L. (2012). Did AUM change everything? What Soka Gakkai before, during, and after the AUM Shinrikyō affair tells us about the persistent “otherness” of new religions in Japan. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 39(1), 51-75.
- Miyata, H. (2020). Impacts of reading habits on mindfulness and psychological status: A further analysis. Waseda Rilas Journal, 8, 207-218.
- Murphy, M. J., Mermelstein, L. C., Edwards, K. M., & Gidycz, C.A. (2012). The benefits of dispositional mindfulness in physical health: A longitudinal study of female college students. Journal of American College Health, 60(5), 341-348.
- Osgood, J. M., McNally, O., Talerico, G. (2017). The personality of a “good test taker”: Self-control and mindfulness predict good time-management when taking exams. International Journal of Psychology and Educational Studies, 4(3), 12-21.
- Parcover, J., Coiro, M. J., Finglass, E., & Barr, E. (2018). Effects of a brief mindfulness based group intervention on college students. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 32(4), 312-329.
- Specs, M., Carlson, L. E., Goodey, E., & Angen, M. (2000). A randomized, wait-list controlled trial: The effect of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction program on mood and symptoms of stress in cancer outpatients. Psychosomatic Medicine, 62, 613-622.
- Teasdale, J., Williams, M., & Segal, Z. (2014). The mindful way workbook: An 8-week program to free yourself from depression and emotional distress. The Guilford Press.
- Wang, Y., & Liu, C. (2016). Cultivate mindfulness: A case study of mindful learning in an English as a foreign language classroom. IAFOR Journal of Education, 4(2), 141-155.
- Williams, M., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Piatkus.
- Zanesco, A. P., Denkova, E., Rogers, S. L., MacNulty, W. K., & Jha, P. A. (2019). Mindfulness training as cognitive training in high-demand cohorts: An initial study in elite military service members. In N. Srinivasan (Ed.), Progress in brain research: Meditation (volume 244) (pp. 323-354). Elsevier.
Josh Brunotte is an associate professor at Aichi Prefectural University in central Japan. He primarily studies the intersection of technology and psychology, including the use of virtual reality for anxiety reduction purposes. He is currently pursuing a PhD at Nagoya University researching best intervention methods for reducing public speaking anxiety.